Fulop may have to make a choice

What appeared to be a local battle over whether Jersey City should change its municipal elections from May to November has apparently taken on statewide importance. Insiders claim that state Senate President Stephen Sweeney and former U.S. Ambassador Phil Murphy are sending money and troops to Jersey City to oppose the move.

This may explain why Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop has decided not to push ahead with a second referendum which, in addition to changing the election month, would eliminate recall elections as well.

Some local observers believe that the referendum to move the election may already be in jeopardy, and that doing away with the recall could increase opposition to the measure.

Fulop needs the municipal election moved to November to assure that he can still run for reelection as mayor in 2017 if he fails to win the Democratic nomination for governor next June.

As it stands now, the gubernatorial primary will be held in June 2017, but the municipal election will be held in May 2017 unless the referendum passes this November.

Sweeney and Murphy are among the Democrats also seeking the nomination for governor, and want to force Fulop to choose between running for governor or running for reelection.

This is a burden for Freeholder Bill O’Dea, who has aspirations to run for mayor if Fulop doesn’t. This means he will have to get his massive army out to support the referendum on the upcoming November ballot. Unfortunately, this puts O’Dea at odds with state Senator Ray Lesniak, who will either also run for the Democrat nomination for governor or support anybody but Fulop in 2017.

Changes made to state law in 2010 allow municipalities to move elections from May to June. Voters approved a non-binding resolution on the move last November, but the results were so mixed and the city so sharply divided that Fulop and the City Council decided to do it again as a binding resolution.

Fulop had also proposed to do away with runoff elections, a change which would have required a second referendum.

Currently, a candidate for council or mayor must win more than 50 percent of the total votes cast. Otherwise, the top two vote-getters face off in a runoff election.

Hoboken successfully did away with its runoff election, which allowed Mayor Dawn Zimmer to win reelection in 2013 with less than 50 percent of the vote.

Most people believe Fulop can win reelection in a November election with or without a runoff.

A dark horse in the Jersey City election

A host of people are looking to take Fulop’s place as mayor, including Freeholder O’Dea, former Assemblyman Sean Connors, and Council President Rolando Lavarro.

Lavarro seems to be distancing himself from some Fulop policies, which include blanket issuing of tax abatements to developers. As a councilman, Fulop was extremely critical of abatement policies that continued to give tax breaks to projects along the waterfront and downtown. His modified plan allows for abatements elsewhere in the city, but it still drew fire from a number of residents, who believed longtime taxpayers were being forced to foot a larger portion of the annual tax burden. Lavarro appears to be seeking to tap into that dissatisfaction. Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, who at one point was seen as the heir apparent to become mayor after Fulop, has fallen out of favor – a common curse these days.

While Councilwoman Joyce Watterman is rumored to be favored as a possible heir to the Fulop throne, insiders claim that Fulop is in conversations with another potential and very viable candidate for mayor, a new possible heir to the Fulop municipal empire.

While some believe that state Senator Sandra Cunningham may seek to become mayor if Fulop does not run, insiders believe that she and former Hoboken Councilwoman Beth Mason may be seeking to run for lieutenant governor on a ticket headed by Sweeney.

Freeholders are in turmoil, too

The freeholders are another unholy mess. Freeholder Gerry Balmir, who was Fulop’s choice for freeholder over incumbent Jeff Dublin three years ago, is now out of favor with Fulop – possibly because of Balmir’s perceived connections to Sweeney.

This will put County Executive Tom DeGise in a tough spot. If he allows Fulop to get the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) to withhold support for Balmir, then Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer may want the same choice when it comes to Freeholder Anthony Romano in next year’s primary. Romano has proven he can win without HCDO support, but it would cost him a sizable chunk of his political war chest to defend his seat when he really needs that cash to later run against Zimmer for mayor.

Not so fast in Bayonne reval

Bayonne Mayor Jimmy Davis may well have dodged another political bullet.

Apparently, his political opponents had hoped to force the city into doing a reevaluation of city properties in order to have the impact felt in time for the 2018 municipal elections.

A revaluation adjusts assessments of properties to reflect current market values. This can have a negative impact on older homes, whose assessed values were set decades ago, and benefits properties that have been bought or sold more recently.

Taxpayers facing increases in taxes generally vote against the administration in power, despite the fact that the state requires revaluation when the disparity between the assessments between older and more recent gets too great.

In Jersey City, some believe Mayor Fulop deliberately aborted an ongoing revaluation in 2013 to avoid the negative blowback from taxpayers early in his administration.

The impact of the last Bayonne revaluation done in the early 1990s is largely blamed for the reelection defeat of then Mayor Richard Rakowski, and Davis opponents had hoped for a similar outcome.

Combined with an annual gap of tens of millions in the municipal budget, Mayor Davis would have been hard pressed to fend off a political challenge. Oddly enough, the move to force the reval is believed to have been orchestrated by a combination of supporters of former Mayor Mark Smith and disgruntled former Davis supporters.

The problem, however, appears to be the city’s tax maps are so out of date that the city must first revise these before it can ever consider doing a revaluation. The impact of a revaluation then would be delayed by more than two years, well past the 2018 municipal election.

Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com